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Pinellas jail count down 500 after concerted legal effort to address coronavirus fears

Incarcerated populations are especially vulnerable to the virus. So judges, prosecutors and public defenders worked together to reduce the Pinellas and Pasco jail populations.
The Pinellas County jail population has decreased by about 500 people in seven days thanks to the concerted effort of Pinellas public defenders, prosecutors and judges. Jails and prisons across the country are grappling with concerns that the coronavirus could infect incarcerated populations. [Times]

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The Pinellas County jail population has dropped by more than 500 people in seven days thanks to a concerted effort by prosecutors, public defenders and judges to take pressure off the crowded facility amid coronavirus fears.

On March 16, the jail population was at 3,003 inmates, with 222 sleeping on rubber mats on the floor. On Monday, a week later, the total was down to 2,524 inmates with 40 still sleeping on the floor, according to Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office data.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri attributed the accelerated releases to the combined efforts of the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit, State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office to resolve certain cases through plea deals that freed defendants, and releasing other inmates on their own recognizance, which means they’re required to appear in court at a later date.

“This wasn’t a sweep of any sort,” Gualtieri said. "This was judges looking at individual cases to see what could be dealt with and disposed of.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri at a 2018 news conference.

Pinellas law enforcement officers are also arresting far fewer people, issuing notices to appear in court instead, the sheriff said, pushing down the number of new people being booked into jail. Before the pandemic, the jail typically booked 130 to 140 people a day. Since March 16, that number has dropped below 70 people.

The lowest number of bookings was on March 20, when 27 people entered the jail. That same day, 231 inmates were released.

Correctional facilities across the nation are especially vulnerable to the coronaviurus, which could quickly spread among the incarcerated and facility staff.

Last week’s jail crowding was due in part to a decision by the Florida Department of Corrections to suspend inmate transfers to state prisons. That means those jail inmates who had been sentenced to prison time, or prison inmates in local jails awaiting court proceedings, couldn’t be released to state prison custody.

After the Tampa Bay Times reported on the situation in the jail, that prompted calls from civil rights groups to start releasing inmates and stop arresting people for minor offenses.

Related: More than 200 Pinellas inmates sleep on floor as coronavirus creates bottleneck

“Jails and prisons combine the worst aspects of cruise ships, conferences, or other large public gatherings and, thus, breed entirely unnecessary risk for those on both sides of the jail walls," according to a joint statement released last week by Faith in Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Dream Defenders.

In Hillsborough County recently, the sheriff and chief judge took a step many of those groups had called for: a targeted release of low-level, non-violent offenders. That facility released 164 inmates last week and is continuing to screen the population every day for more eligible inmates, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Granit.

On March 18 — the day Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta issued the order authorizing Sheriff Chad Chronister to start releasing inmates — that jail’s population was 2,789. By Tuesday, it was at 2,518.

The Pinellas judicial circuit, which includes Pasco County, took a different approach. Public Defender Bob Dillinger said his office sent letters to all jail inmates in both counties to start setting up hearings for inmates who may be eligible for release.

The court held video hearings to address those cases. And, while the State Attorney’s Office has challenged some potential releases, they’ve been more flexible than usual, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

“We’re not just rolling over on every one of them," Bartlett said. But, “quite frankly, I would think that some people perhaps who under different circumstances would not be let out are being let out."

Bartlett pointed to examples such as someone who was in possession of a crack pipe, or those accused of lower-level financial crimes as cases in which his office has supported release.

A similar effort is underway for inmates in the Pasco County jail, according to a statement from circuit spokesman Steve Thompson. That facility has grappled with overcrowding for years. On Tuesday, the jail had 1,628 inmates in custody, including 80 housed in Hernando County, said Pasco County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Hunter. The Pasco jail’s capacity is 1,432.

Dillinger lauded the reduction method as the best the court system can do while maintaining the discretion of his office, prosecutors and judges.

“We’ve done everything we can to help reduce the jail population,” he said. “And ... it’s all been done the way regular court works."

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

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